The Cherry Bombs
The Notorious Cherry Bombs (Universal South)
The opening song on The Notorious Cherry Bombs finds an old friend castigating another for abandoning his sense of humor and youthful adventurefor starting to grow old before his time. Set to an elastic groove, "Let It Roll, Let It Ride" is about middle-aged guys reminding themselves that being mature and responsible doesn't mean having to forsake the irreverence and swagger of their youth.
It's the perfect opening gambit for this reunion of 50ish fellows, led by singers Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill and producer Tony Brown, all of whom have become giants in their particular fields. For 11 tracks, the reconstituted Cherry Bombs toss off the weight of their reputations to create a cohesive album packed with wit, roadhouse grooves and the kind of easy camaraderie we all hope to experience when we get together with old friends.
Some might think the reunion was inspired by the life-threatening head injury Brown suffered in 2003, when he spent several weeks in a coma after falling on a hotel stairway in Los Angeles. But the group originally reunited to back Crowell when he received a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP in 2002. The show went so well that Crowell and "Benefit," as he calls his friend Gill, already had talked to Brown about recording a Cherry Bombs album. "Then Tony broke his head, and we had to put it off," Crowell says with a grin.
The core group of eight players have been intertwined for at least 25 years, most of them through their membership in Emmylou Harris' fabled Hot Band. The glue, however, is Crowell, who formed The Cherry Bombs as his backing band in the late '70s. For the next few years, the group backed both Crowell and his ex-wife Rosanne Cash on record and on the road.
The band's distinctive sound took the chiming melodies of The Byrds and The Beatles and imbued them with a blue-collar honky-tonk cast. The result was tough and concise, updating what the group loved about Chuck Berry and the Sun, Mersey Beat and Bakersfield sounds. It was the Southern equivalent of what Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Elvis Costello were creating at the same time in England.
The last member to join The Cherry Bombs was Gill, who came aboard as a guitarist for Crowell's self-titled third album in 1981. Three years later, Gill was signed to his first record contract by Tony Brown, who had been The Cherry Bombs' pianist. Brown later produced Gill's breakthrough album, 1989's When I Call Your Name; he also produced Crowell's best-selling album, 1988's Diamonds & Dirt.
Richard Bennett, another guitarist for The Cherry Bombs, co-produced Steve Earle's landmark Guitar Town album with Brown and Emory Gordy Jr., The Cherry Bombs' bassist. (Gordy, who now produces the albums of his wife Patty Loveless, opted out of the reunion; he was replaced by longtime Crowell cohort Michael Rhodes, one of Music Row's top session bassists.)
Steel guitarist and songwriter Hank DeVito is now a well-regarded photographer and graphic artist, but he came out of retirement to lend his signature sound to the album. The late Larrie Londin, the group's original drummer, has been replaced by Eddie Bayers Jr., a friend of Londin's and the busiest session drummer in Nashville for the last 20 years. Keyboard player John Hobbs, another new member, has recorded with all of the above numerous times over the last 25 years.
"Every one of us has known each other since we were starting out," Crowell says. "It's not just Vince and Tony and me that go way back. We all do."
Rather than reviving old ghosts, the group chose to do new original material: The only cover is a crisp remake of "Sweet Little Lisa," a DeVito co-write recorded by Dave Edmunds and guitarist Albert Lee (another former Cherry Bomb) many years ago.
The album has its serious moments: Crowell's "Makin' Memories of Us" ranks with the most beautiful ballads he's recorded, and Gill's "Oklahoma Dust" and "Forever Someday" are the kind of soulful barroom country songs he creates when he's at his best.
But most of the record is mad fun like the hilarious "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips At Night (That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long)." Arranged like a 30-year-old George Jones classic, it's a tongue-in-cheek tearjerker about a hen-pecked guy and his marital woes. "If a tree fell in the forest / And she didn't hear it / Would I still be wrong?," Gill sings with mock heartbreak.
Most of the album is like that: It resembles a bunch of NBA All-Stars acting like the Harlem Globetrotters, just having fun and cracking jokes, but with impeccable rhythm, chops and unexpected surprises, such as Tony Brown breaking into a Baptist preacher rap on a closing reprise of "Let It Roll, Let It Ride."
"We pushed Tony do it, but he got so into it, I was worried whether his stitches were going to hold," Gill wisecracks. "Yea," adds Crowell, "I was afraid he was going to back those screws out of his head."
The two old friends look at each other and fall over in laughter, a shared moment that exemplifies why these old friends decided to re-light The Cherry Bombs after all these years.
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